Until March 2020, American schooling looked much like it had in 1920. Despite new technologies, ever-increasing outlays, and wave after wave of reform, the rhythms and routines of America’s schools were little changed. Students set out from their homes to school in the early morning, sat in front of a teacher in primary school or a series of teachers in secondary school, sporadically used the latest technologies, and then headed home. Dress codes, popular pedagogies, the number of adults in the building, and the technology may have changed, but what students and teachers actually did had not.
Then came COVID-19. Schools shut down nationwide, forcing educators to think differently about educational delivery. The sudden shift to remote learning spurred new practices, leading teachers to discover new skills and strategies. It created unparalleled transparency for parents regarding what happens in the classroom and upended how tens of millions of parents interacted with their children’s schools.
The disruption born of this once-in-a-century pandemic could yield a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink K-12 schooling. Closures rattled public confidence in local schools. Familiar routines were shattered. Interest in home schooling and other alternatives has exploded. All of this loosened the status quo’s grip on school norms, parental expectations, and the public imagination.
And yet, even as school systems spend close to $200 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, they’ve mostly been spending on what’s familiar: adding staff, buying tablets, seeking better PD or curricula, and pursuing the instructional enthusiasms of the moment.
None of these approaches is remotely new. Public school staffing grew at almost four times the rate of student enrollment from 1950 to 2015, with teaching staff growing twice as fast as enrollment, and nonteaching staff seven times as fast. And for decades, school reformers have eagerly adopted standards, designed intricate accountability systems, overhauled teacher evaluation, reduced class sizes, implemented new data systems, and more, all while spending plenty of money.
But these years of frantic reform have yielded little obvious benefit. A 2018 RAND evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s $575 million Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative, which punctuated a sweeping national push to overhaul teacher evaluation, found that the initiative didn’t improve student achievement, attract talented teachers, or change teacher practices or evaluations. Education scholar Tom Loveless’ authoritative study of the Common Core found no impact on student achievement. The Obama Department of Education found that the billions spent on its signature School Improvement Grant program had little impact on student outcomes, as well. Meanwhile, the Programme for International Student Assessment—which conducts the only major international assessment of students in both reading and math—reports that U.S. performance hasn’t significantly budged since the test’s first administration in 2000.
That so many high-profile school reforms haven’t delivered the promised results should make us cautious about putting too much faith in simply doing more of the same. And yet, for a long time, “more is better” has been the organizing principle of educational improvement. Even as after-inflation, per-pupil spending almost tripled over the course of the past 50 years, the belief that schools are underfunded remains an article of faith. Even as the growth of staff has outpaced that of student enrollment, we’re told schools are understaffed. Even as one technology after another has disappointed, reformers have remained convinced that the next one will provide the answer.
It’s time for would-be reformers to set aside the familiar stratagems and look more closely at two fundamental questions: How do schools use professional talent? And how do they use technology? The post-pandemic recovery offers a unique moment to tackle these queries and escape the gravitational pull of the “more is better” philosophy.
I offered 6,000 words on how we might better answer those questions in this winter’s issue of National Affairs. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll check it out.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.